“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23
To take up the cross means to identify with Christ; sharing in his rejection, shame, suffering, and death. When I’ve traveled to Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria and Sudan to visit and worship with the Christian communities, I have encountered the faith of those who carry their cross daily and follow Jesus Christ. On one trip, I wrote in my journal, “The living faith of this persecuted church has grown from the Cross of Christ. The cross has become their proud symbol of the strength to live and die for Jesus Christ. The followers of Jesus in these lands of oppression have adopted the cross to symbolize the only life they want to live. In the sign of the cross they conquer the forces of darkness, oppression, hatred and evil. To them, the cross represents their daily struggle, the pain of betrayal, suffering, affliction and the triumphant faith of following Christ.”
Archbishop Carey has said, “In our Western Church we have lost the dimension of radical discipleship to identify with Christ in the suffering and pain of humanity. We have replaced it with a following of Jesus which is virtually costless. Indeed, some evangelists are guilty of going to the other extreme of offering the carrot that if you accept Jesus; he will solve your problems, help you find a good job, husband, wife, peace, contentment, etc. The motive behind this may be admirable – it’s true, that the presence of the Lord is healing – but the result is a ‘filleted’ Christianity, with sacrifice removed.”
To carry the Cross of Christ in our lives is not to make a stylish fashion statement or a lifestyle choice. In many such places even in the 21st century it is a risky, costly, demanding and often dangerous business to commit one’s life to live under the cross. Last year in March I was in Pakistan. I personally witnessed regular rampages through Christian neighborhoods. While in Joseph Colony, a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, I personally witnessed the torching of 200 homes and churches. Just last year on September 22 the shocking suicide bombing at All Saints Church, Peshawar killed 132 and injured over 200 faithful worshippers on a Sunday morning. Followers of Jesus Christ in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East are the daily targets of hate and persecution. Over the past two years, there have been more than 150 reported kidnappings of Christians in Upper Egypt. Criminal gangs have been able to operate with impunity, payments extorted from families in exchange for their loved ones’ release range from $7,000 to $500,000 (Lord David Alton). Christians in such places face persecution and unspeakable violence because they confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
It is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Pastor who died under Hitler, called “costly discipleship.” The Church itself and our individual lives are ultimately built on faith that must extend beyond belief merely in a theology of prosperity and happy living. It must be a faith that dares to risk, to reach out, to put Christ at our center instead of our selves. The 14th century theologian Thomas a Kempis said, “Jesus now has many lovers of his heavenly Kingdom, but few bearers of his Cross.”
To bear the Cross is not a romantic idea but a costly venture for Christians in Pakistan and the Middle East. It’s costly for those who want to witness to the redeeming power of the Cross of Christ. Over the years our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created lots of ill will in the Muslim world. The Islamic world has drawn the conclusion that the Christian West is in a crusade against Islam. There is a great wave of hatred towards the Christian church in the Islamic world. Bishop Mano Rumalshah, a Pakistani Bishop during his visit to the United States in 2013 said, “After the attacks of September 11, 2011, the Northwest Frontiers of Pakistan (NWFP) grew incredibly unstable. Nine-eleven turned the whole thing upside down. We witness as a church in this dangerous area. Our Diocese serves the poorest of the poor with medical and pastoral care as well as educational training. It is estimated that in NWFP there are 100,000 Christians out of a total population of 17 million. But the services of our church are open to people of all faiths, including terrorist sympathizers. Anyone who walks through the door is a child of God. It’s costly love, sacrificial love. It is precious love. Our presence is alive, and we are not underground.” This church is above the ground serving in the name of the crucified and the risen Christ.
How do we carry a cross in such a charged atmosphere? Many of us today are debating the merits of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would say the response of Christian cross-bearers is to pray as the Lord’s Prayer makes clear, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” As people from the West we must extend our hand to the people in troubled lands in love. Our Savior Jesus Christ stretched out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone, without discrimination among Jews and Gentile, black or white, Muslim, Hindu or Christian, might come within the reach of Jesus’ saving embrace. The cross of Christ loudly broadcasts the message of forgiveness, love and reconciliation among God and His fellow human beings.
To live under the cross, means that every aspect of the life of a Christian believer is shaped and colored by the example of the crucified and risen Christ. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). During this time of war, uncertainty, and chaos in our world let our prayers direct us to “seek peace and pursue it.” Peacemaking is a serious endeavor, as the peace which God promises is never cheap peace. It is always costly as God made peace with the sinful humanity through the blood of Jesus Christ’s cross (Colossians 1:20). In order to work as peacemakers among our human family, to build bridges of hope, between ourselves and those who differ with us, we will have to demonstrate our authenticity as God’s children. Nietzsche, an atheist and nihilist, once remarked, “You Christians will have to look a lot more redeemed before I start believing in your Redeemer.” I hope and pray that the cross is not just a theological abstraction, but a living reality in our everyday lives, inspiring us to serve God and God’s People in our communities and the world.